As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyesrested on a large photograph of May Welland, whichthe young girl had given him in the first days of theirromance, and which had now displaced all the otherportraits on the table. With a new sense of awe helooked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gayinnocent mouth of the young creature whose soul'scustodian he was to be. That terrifying product of thesocial system he belonged to and believed in, the younggirl who knew nothing and expected everything, lookedback at him like a stranger through May Welland'sfamiliar features; and once more it was borne in onhim that marriage was not the safe anchorage he hadbeen taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.
The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up oldsettled convictions and set them drifting dangerouslythrough his mind. His own exclamation: "Women shouldbe free--as free as we are," struck to the root of aproblem that it was agreed in his world to regard asnon-existent. "Nice" women, however wronged, wouldnever claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore--in the heat ofargument--the more chivalrously ready to concede itto them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only ahumbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions thattied things together and bound people down to the oldpattern. But here he was pledged to defend, on the partof his betrothed's cousin, conduct that, on his ownwife's part, would justify him in calling down on herall the thunders of Church and State. Of course thedilemma was purely hypothetical; since he wasn't ablackguard Polish nobleman, it was absurd to speculatewhat his wife's rights would be if he WERE. But NewlandArcher was too imaginative not to feel that, in his caseand May's, the tie might gall for reasons far less grossand palpable. What could he and she really know ofeach other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow,to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageablegirl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for someone of the subtler reasons that would tell with both ofthem, they should tire of each other, misunderstand orirritate each other? He reviewed his friends' marriages--the supposedly happy ones--and saw none thatanswered, even remotely, to the passionate and tendercomradeship which he pictured as his permanent relationwith May Welland. He perceived that such a picturepresupposed, on her part, the experience, theversatility, the freedom of judgment, which she hadbeen carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiverof foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what mostof the other marriages about him were: a dull associationof material and social interests held together byignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.Lawrence Lefferts occurred to him as the husband whohad most completely realised this enviable ideal. Asbecame the high-priest of form, he had formed a wifeso completely to his own convenience that, in the mostconspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs withother men's wives, she went about in smilingunconsciousness, saying that "Lawrence was so frightfullystrict"; and had been known to blush indignantly, andavert her gaze, when some one alluded in her presenceto the fact that Julius Beaufort (as became a "foreigner"of doubtful origin) had what was known inNew York as "another establishment."
Archer tried to console himself with the thought thathe was not quite such an ass as Larry Lefferts, nor Maysuch a simpleton as poor Gertrude; but the differencewas after all one of intelligence and not of standards.In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world,where the real thing was never said or done or eventhought, but only represented by a set of arbitrarysigns; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly whyArcher had pressed her to announce her daughter'sengagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeedexpected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulatereluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced,quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people ofadvanced culture were beginning to read, the savagebride is dragged with shrieks from her parents' tent.
The result, of course, was that the young girl whowas the centre of this elaborate system of mystificationremained the more inscrutable for her very franknessand assurance. She was frank, poor darling, becauseshe had nothing to conceal, assured because she knewof nothing to be on her guard against; and with nobetter preparation than this, she was to be plungedovernight into what people evasively called "the factsof life."
The young man was sincerely but placidly in love.He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed,in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quicknessat games, and the shy interest in books and ideasthat she was beginning to develop under his guidance.(She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculingthe Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty ofUlysses and the Lotus Eaters.) She was straightforward,loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chieflyproved by her laughing at HIS jokes); and he suspected,in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow offeeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when hehad gone the brief round of her he returned discouragedby the thought that all this frankness and innocencewere only an artificial product. Untrained humannature was not frank and innocent; it was full of thetwists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felthimself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity,so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothersand aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses,because it was supposed to be what he wanted, whathe had a right to, in order that he might exercise hislordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made ofsnow.
There was a certain triteness in these reflections: theywere those habitual to young men on the approach oftheir wedding day. But they were generally accompaniedby a sense of compunction and self-abasement ofwhich Newland Archer felt no trace. He could notdeplore (as Thackeray's heroes so often exasperatedhim by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer hisbride in exchange for the unblemished one she was togive to him. He could not get away from the fact that ifhe had been brought up as she had they would havebeen no more fit to find their way about than the Babesin the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations,see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnectedwith his own momentary pleasure, and the passion ofmasculine vanity) why his bride should not have beenallowed the same freedom of experience as himself.
Such questions, at such an hour, were bound to driftthrough his mind; but he was conscious that theiruncomfortable persistence and precision were due tothe inopportune arrival of the Countess Olenska. Herehe was, at the very moment of his betrothal--a momentfor pure thoughts and cloudless hopes--pitchforkedinto a coil of scandal which raised all the special problemshe would have preferred to let lie. "Hang EllenOlenska!" he grumbled, as he covered his fire andbegan to undress. He could not really see why her fateshould have the least bearing on his; yet he dimly feltthat he had only just begun to measure the risks of thechampionship which his engagement had forced uponhim.
A few days later the bolt fell.
The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what wasknown as "a formal dinner" (that is, three extra footmen,two dishes for each course, and a Roman punchin the middle), and had headed their invitations withthe words "To meet the Countess Olenska," in accordancewith the hospitable American fashion, whichtreats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least astheir ambassadors.
The guests had been selected with a boldness anddiscrimination in which the initiated recognised thefirm hand of Catherine the Great. Associated with suchimmemorial standbys as the Selfridge Merrys, who wereasked everywhere because they always had been, theBeauforts, on whom there was a claim of relationship,and Mr. Sillerton Jackson and his sister Sophy (whowent wherever her brother told her to), were some ofthe most fashionable and yet most irreproachable ofthe dominant "young married" set; the LawrenceLeffertses, Mrs. Lefferts Rushworth (the lovely widow),the Harry Thorleys, the Reggie Chiverses and youngMorris Dagonet and his wife (who was a van derLuyden). The company indeed was perfectly assorted,since all the members belonged to the little inner groupof people who, during the long New York season,disported themselves together daily and nightly withapparently undiminished zest.
Forty-eight hours later the unbelievable hadhappened; every one had refused the Mingotts' invitationexcept the Beauforts and old Mr. Jackson and his sister.The intended slight was emphasised by the fact thateven the Reggie Chiverses, who were of the Mingottclan, were among those inflicting it; and by theuniform wording of the notes, in all of which the writers"regretted that they were unable to accept," withoutthe mitigating plea of a "previous engagement" thatordinary courtesy prescribed.
New York society was, in those days, far too small,and too scant in its resources, for every one in it(including livery-stable-keepers, butlers and cooks) notto know exactly on which evenings people were free;and it was thus possible for the recipients of Mrs.Lovell Mingott's invitations to make cruelly clear theirdetermination not to meet the Countess Olenska.
The blow was unexpected; but the Mingotts, as theirway was, met it gallantly. Mrs. Lovell Mingottconfided the case to Mrs. Welland, who confided it toNewland Archer; who, aflame at the outrage, appealedpassionately and authoritatively to his mother; who,after a painful period of inward resistance and outwardtemporising, succumbed to his instances (as she alwaysdid), and immediately embracing his cause with anenergy redoubled by her previous hesitations, put onher grey velvet bonnet and said: "I'll go and see Louisavan der Luyden."
The New York of Newland Archer's day was a smalland slippery pyramid, in which, as yet, hardly a fissurehad been made or a foothold gained. At its base was afirm foundation of what Mrs. Archer called "plainpeople"; an honourable but obscure majority ofrespectable families who (as in the case of the Spicers orthe Leffertses or the Jacksons) had been raised abovetheir level by marriage with one of the ruling clans.People, Mrs. Archer always said, were not as particularas they used to be; and with old Catherine Spicer rulingone end of Fifth Avenue, and Julius Beaufort the other,you couldn't expect the old traditions to last muchlonger.
Firmly narrowing upward from this wealthy butinconspicuous substratum was the compact and dominantgroup which the Mingotts, Newlands, Chiversesand Mansons so actively represented. Most people imaginedthem to be the very apex of the pyramid; but theythemselves (at least those of Mrs. Archer's generation)were aware that, in the eyes of the professional genealogist,only a still smaller number of families could layclaim to that eminence.
"Don't tell me," Mrs. Archer would say to herchildren, "all this modern newspaper rubbish about a NewYork aristocracy. If there is one, neither the Mingottsnor the Mansons belong to it; no, nor the Newlands orthe Chiverses either. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were just respectable English or Dutchmerchants, who came to the colonies to make theirfortune, and stayed here because they did so well. Oneof your great-grandfathers signed the Declaration, andanother was a general on Washington's staff, andreceived General Burgoyne's sword after the battle ofSaratoga. These are things to be proud of, but theyhave nothing to do with rank or class. New York hasalways been a commercial community, and there arenot more than three families in it who can claim anaristocratic origin in the real sense of the word."
Mrs. Archer and her son and daughter, like everyone else in New York, knew who these privileged beingswere: the Dagonets of Washington Square, who cameof an old English county family allied with the Pittsand Foxes; the Lannings, who had intermarried withthe descendants of Count de Grasse, and the van derLuydens, direct descendants of the first Dutch governorof Manhattan, and related by pre-revolutionarymarriages to several members of the French and Britisharistocracy.
The Lannings survived only in the person of twovery old but lively Miss Lannings, who lived cheerfullyand reminiscently among family portraits and Chippendale;the Dagonets were a considerable clan, allied tothe best names in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but thevan der Luydens, who stood above all of them, hadfaded into a kind of super-terrestrial twilight, fromwhich only two figures impressively emerged; those ofMr. and Mrs. Henry van der Luyden.
Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had been Louisa Dagonet,and her mother had been the granddaughter of Coloneldu Lac, of an old Channel Island family, who hadfought under Cornwallis and had settled in Maryland,after the war, with his bride, Lady Angelica Trevenna,fifth daughter of the Earl of St. Austrey. The tiebetween the Dagonets, the du Lacs of Maryland, andtheir aristocratic Cornish kinsfolk, the Trevennas, hadalways remained close and cordial. Mr. and Mrs. vander Luyden had more than once paid long visits to thepresent head of the house of Trevenna, the Duke of St.Austrey, at his country-seat in Cornwall and at St.Austrey in Gloucestershire; and his Grace had frequentlyannounced his intention of some day returning theirvisit (without the Duchess, who feared the Atlantic).
Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden divided their timebetween Trevenna, their place in Maryland, and Skuytercliff,the great estate on the Hudson which had been oneof the colonial grants of the Dutch government to thefamous first Governor, and of which Mr. van der Luydenwas still "Patroon." Their large solemn house in MadisonAvenue was seldom opened, and when they came to townthey received in it only their most intimate friends.
"I wish you would go with me, Newland," his mothersaid, suddenly pausing at the door of the Browncoupe. "Louisa is fond of you; and of course it's onaccount of dear May that I'm taking this step--andalso because, if we don't all stand together, there'll beno such thing as Society left."